Every day, we use words and phrases by habit, and as unthinkingly as when we’re putting on a comfortable pair of slippers. Perhaps we ought to consider more carefully, because words can have deeper, darker meanings than we know. Some of them have edges as sharp as a knife, and will make us bleed.
Take these, for example.
It’s magic. It’s marvellous and exciting, an unexpected treat, a surprise gift, leaving us breathless with enjoyment. Just magic.
It was like magic. Something happens out of the blue, something both welcome and unexpected. Or, something we do runs without a hitch, despite our fears and doubts beforehand. It went like magic.
Magical. Something particularly wonderful or enchanting. The intricate Moorish architecture of the Alhambra. A cavern full of stalactites. A forest after the first snowfall of winter. Absolutely magical.
We use all of these phrases, as though we could strip magic of the depth of its power, and turn it into something soft and sparkly, something like the warm glint of a hero’s smile. But magic isn’t like any of that. Magic isn’t beautiful and benign. Magic isn’t kind and gentle. Magic isn’t even black or white. Like all cats in the night, magic is grey. And this monochrome power tears, and rips, and claws the heart out of reality, leaving it bloody and dying. Magic changes what is, turning reality into shadows, and shadows into reality. What we know is replaced by what might have been. Or by what ought never to have come to pass. Magic is selfish, re-forging past, present and future according to the designs of the spell caster alone. Instead of stepping lightly through the world, it crushes wherever it treads, with a weight that reverberates throughout the whole of space and time.
A forest after the first snowfall of winter may seem to be a magical place, but it has fangs, and will eat you whole.
Perhaps the most terrible sort of magic is soul magic.
It’s 1753, and there’s a funeral.
“Taken too soon from the bosom of his family, a man of just 20 years and 6, Liam was well-loved by everyone he met. Receive this, your humble servant. We pray that you may take his eternal soul into your care, Father.”
Is the priest to be disappointed? When Liam was taken by Darla, the demon took his body, but not his soul. His soul was left free, but did it go to some eternal judgment? To some manner of Purgatory? Or was it sent to sleep the sleep of death until the Last Judgement?
It found a new home.
The baby was aggressive even in the womb, and his mother barely survived the birth. He was demanding and fretful and, later, took pleasure in biting his mother’s nipples to draw blood. This Liam had a far blacker temper than the unremembered man he had been before.
Was his soul tainted by the touch of the vampire as it fled the dying body? Perhaps so. Or perhaps, while the mind and memory still live, the soul remains bound to the person it has become. Like fundamental particles of matter that have been divided, do mind and soul remain in eternal entanglement?
Or was it simply that the shock of death by demonic possession drove Liam’s soul mad for a space of time?
Whatever the truth of it, the monster that he became was unloved and unmourned when he was kicked to death in a bitter feud. That was in 1770. He was just sixteen. Afterwards, the whores who slept with him for free, in fear that he would cut them if they refused, told of how he would cry in his sleep. Of how, when he woke, he would scrub his hands until they bled. One of them, a tiny blonde girl, still young and pretty, would show the scars where he had beaten her after she unthinkingly called him ‘dear boy’ although why that should be an offence she never knew. None of their listeners paid much account to the stories of whores. The beating they could believe, but none of them could imagine Liam crying in the night.
His soul found another haven in William Vazy, a man who managed to restrain his vicious tendencies until he was drunk, although that was often. True, he used his fists, not weapons, but when he died at the age of thirty seven, his wife and children shed no tears. They told no one of the times when, too drunk even to lash out at them, he would cower away from dark shadows in their ill lit rooms. Or of the times when he woke from sleep in a murderous rage, when his wife had to defend herself and her babies with the kitchen knife as Vazy threatened to wipe out his own devil-spawn. Or of the night when, for no reason that he would ever tell her, he smashed to flinders the wooden crucifix that she kept on the dressing table.
Bill O’Dwyer’s violence lay in his words. He was sharp-tongued and bitter, a morose man with black moods and few friends. But he never killed anyone. No one ever knew of the bloody dreams that woke him up, sweating.
At last, though, the soul seemed to have torn itself free of the shackles of the demon, when it was born as Liam Donnelly. He was a man given to dark fancies, to fears that death and damnation lay round every corner, but otherwise he lived a more or less blameless life. He married young, a small blonde girl called Louisa, and they were as much in love as their grinding poverty would permit. Despite her small size and her narrow hips, she was very fertile. He was thirty two when she was confined with their ninth child...
The First Re-ensoulment
It’s 1898, and Liam Donnelly is running home, urged on by his second eldest daughter, Annie. There’s never enough money to go round, with eight mouths to feed, and another on the way, and so he’d had to go to work, even though he knew that Louisa’s time was upon her. There was no money for a doctor, of course, but Kitty Middleton, the midwife from the next street over, had come early that morning with her basket full of god only knew what, and Beth, their eldest daughter, was there to help. Eleven wasn’t too young to help.
But something is wrong, and Annie has been sent to fetch him. It has taken her a long time to find him at the sprawling docks, though, and now they have to run. They have to slow down to round the corner at the Marquis of Granby inn, threading through the workless men standing idle outside the doors, and the prostitutes looking for customers. As they turn the corner, one of them reaches out and catches his hand.
“Only tuppence, sir. Anything you like.”
He turns to push her away, and then he sees her face. She’s just a child, about the same age as Annie, who has hold of his other hand. Ice grips his gut as he looks at her waif-like face, her empty eyes. This is just one of the evils that can befall orphans in this pitiless city. Gently, he prises her fingers away from his, but she reaches out to him again.
Annie tugs at him. “Papa! We have to go.”
He turns to her and picks her up, carrying her through the streets as though to protect her from the fate of the child they’ve left behind. Or as a talisman to protect him from what might be happening at home.
He’s halfway along his street before he puts her down, surprised to see that there’s a cab outside his house. He comes to a heavy halt as his door opens, and a man in a stained black frock coat and a top hat steps out, followed by the thin wail of a newborn. Kitty Middleton is behind him.
It’s the doctor, and there’s no money in the tin on the mantelpiece to pay him. But Liam isn’t thinking about that now. Kitty Middleton has no more money than he has, and she wouldn’t have called the doctor unless the case was urgent. He tastes the bile in his throat as Kitty nods to the man. He sees the mutton-chop whiskers move as the doctor clenches his jaw.
“I’m sorry, Mr Donnelly. I’ve...” He looks at the wrinkled old midwife in her red apron, and he gives her her due. “We’ve done all we can. We can’t stop the bleeding. There’s nothing else... Go and say goodbye to her.”
Without another word, he climbs into the cab, the driver whips up his horse, and the cab rumbles off down the street.
He has to let go of Annie’s hand to tread up the narrow steps and into the house, his heart hammering so loud that he thinks Kitty Middleton must hear it as he strides past her. It’s hammering so hard that it hurts.
Four of his daughters, the youngest, are huddled together. Annie goes to stand by them. His two firstborn, his sons, are dead, taken by the typhus before their seventh birthday. Now he has only daughters, but he loves them dearly.
He loves his wife even more dearly, and his hand trembles on the banister as he mounts the stairs. Beth, his eldest, stands in the doorway to his bedroom. There are only two bedrooms in this tiny house, and the girls share the other. This one is for him and Louisa. And for the baby, the child that eleven year old Beth is holding in her arms, wrapped in an old piece of towelling. The crib is already made up, in a corner of the cramped room. Beth is crying, her head downcast, tears running over her cheeks. He watches her as she carries the wailing baby downstairs, leaving him alone with her mother.
He composes himself for a few seconds before going into the room. He needs Louisa not to know that her life is ebbing away, that she will leave him alone to raise their children, and when he crosses the threshold, his face wears the expression she knows so well. It’s a face of love, with the small smile that she always traces with her finger. When he sees her, his heart lurches. Her face, too, is wearing the mask of love, pasted over her grey, bloodless features.
He sits down beside her, and takes her work-worn hand in his. It’s cold already.
“It’s a boy,” she whispers. “He’s strong and healthy. Will you call him Daniel?” That’s for her dead father.
His throat closes up and so he nods and grips her hand more tightly, as though to lend her his own strength. She tries to return his clasp, but she is weak.
“I know you’ll care for them all,” Louisa manages. “Beth and Annie will help.”
Her eyes are fading now, her life slipping away.
“I’ll take good care of them,” he assures her, soothing her fears. He wants to say that he will make sure they don’t forget her, but he still wants to pretend that she’s going to live. Instead, he says, “I love you.”
She doesn’t have the strength to reply, and he leans over to kiss her. “I’ll work all hours for them, I promise.” She seems content with that as his lips touch her cold mouth.
Her eyes follow him, as he straightens, and then he gasps, as pain, sharp and jagged, grips his heart. Words sound in his ears, words that are close and yet far away.
Not dead... nor not of the living. Spirits of the interregnum, I call.
His fists go to his chest as he doubles over... Gods, bind him. Cast his heart from the... evil... realm.
And then the pain loosens its grip. As he sits up straight, he sees the look of horror on her face.
“I’m fine,” he tells her with relief. “Fine.” The voice has gone, along with the cutting, tearing agony.
He knows what she is thinking. If anything happened to him, their children would be orphans, with no close relatives, no older brothers to fend for them. He remembers the child prostitute, and thinks of Annie and Beth. Pickpocketing, or prostitution. Those are the alternatives to the workhouse, if they could even get a place there. Louisa spent some time in the workhouse when she was young, and it scarred her. The thought of their daughters prostituting themselves would scar her even more.
“I’m fine. The children will be well. I promise.”
She gives him the ghost of a smile as her eyes start to close, and then the pain strikes again, an ogre squeezing him in its fist. He pushes himself to his feet, gasping for air, as blood thunders in his ears, and the thunder has words hidden in it.
Asa sa fie! Asa sa fie! Acum!
He falls to his knees, tears on his cheeks. His dying regret is that Louisa will live just long enough to know that he will never keep his promise to her, that their children will be homeless and hopeless and destitute. And she cannot stop it.
And then he knows nothing more.
Gypsy Man: It hurts, yes? Good. It will hurt more.
Angel: (confused) Where am I? (pants hard)
Gypsy Man: You don't remember... everything you've done for a hundred years. In a moment, you will. The face of everyone you killed... our daughter's face... they will haunt you, and you will know what true suffering is.
Angel: (still not understanding) Killed? I, I don't...
He will soon remember all those the vampire has killed. But he won’t remember the family he has left destitute, because this mind doesn’t have those memories. But his soul will feel the weight of regret for them. He will grieve for them and he will need to punish himself for abandoning them when they most needed him, even though he has no memory of it. The blame lies elsewhere, but he doesn’t know that, and he will pay.
This spell caster wouldn’t care if she knew. She wants revenge, not justice. Revenge is what she has, in full measure.
The Second Re-ensoulment
Angel: She's not breathing.
Xander: But if she drowned, uh, there's a shot! CPR!
Angel: You have to do it. I have no breath.
Where would Buffy’s soul go, if it were driven from her body, with the Master’s fangs in her neck, and ice cold cave water in her lungs? It would go looking for someone to save, of course.
Sadie Thomson sits on the damp grass, holding her daughter in her arms. Holding the flesh that used to be her daughter. Coral is only three years old. Was only three years old. Somehow, she has managed to let herself out of the kitchen, and now she has drowned in the garden pond. The paramedics have done all they can, with their CPR and their paddles, but it was all too late. Now, they’re letting Sadie hold her one last time before they take away the lifeless remnants of her only child.
Tears run down Sadie’s cheeks, falling unheeded onto that ash grey skin. And then, miraculously, Coral’s tiny hand moves, brushing at her face. She hiccoughs, water spilling from her mouth, and then draws in a deep breath.
Sadie gives a small, strangled scream, but her mother’s instinct kicks in, and she holds her baby close.
“I’m right here, pumpkin. I won’t let go.”
“Mommy?” The child seems dazed, unsure, as she reaches a hand out towards Sadie’s lips. Coral’s memory is saying Mommy, but her new soul knows the difference.
Something echoes in Sadie’s head, words that she herself has spoken only minutes before.
C'mon! Breathe! Breathe!
Coral reaches out to her mother one more time, and then she slumps forward, a puppet whose strings have been cut. The paramedics, startled, run back, but it’s too late. Coral’s heart is still beating, but there’s nobody home.
A life for a life. That’s how magic works. Everything must be paid for, even when the magic has no spells, no rituals, just the magic of breath and chest compressions.
The Third Re-ensoulment
Angel: Buffy, maybe we shouldn't...
Buffy: (stops him) Don't. Just kiss me.
He’s never felt so happy. He knows that the cosmic balance still isn’t in his favour, but, as he lies here watching Buffy sleep, it seems that everything might be possible. It seems that the Fates might just be on his side, helping him to get to the other end of the pendulum swing. Or perhaps it’s just this girl, this Slayer, whose love is stacking the odds in his favour.
That thought warms him, and he takes in a deep, shuddering breath which seems to fuel that fire. He’s so happy that he burns with it.
And then the burning intensifies, consuming him, a dwarf star in his heart. In pain, he pulls away from his lover, scrambling into his clothes, anxious to get away from her. He thinks that if he breathed now, he would breathe out fire. Whatever is happening to him, she mustn’t be hurt. But he’s felt something like this before... When the gypsies took him. He’s sure they aren’t trying to give him a second soul, because one was more than enough. There’s only one other possibility... He doesn’t understand how it might have happened, after all these decades, but if he’s to become that vicious animal again, he has to get as far away from her as possible, for her sake and for his own.
But when he gets outside, he can no longer keep his feet, and he falls to the floor. He’s weak enough to cry out her name, perhaps in the hope that she will stake him before it’s too late. The burning has sharpened, and it’s a white hot blade, carving through his psyche. He remembers her dream, that Drusilla had staked him, that he’d crumbled to dust under Buffy’s horrified gaze, and perhaps it was a Slayer dream. Perhaps it meant this. He screams out her name, willing her to wake, and make an end of him.
“Oh, no...” The words are torn from him, together with that fragile and mystical soul. He feels it scream as it leaves, and then he hears a woman’s voice. It isn’t Her voice, but it asks if he’s all right.
“I’m fine.” And he really, really is. He’ll be even better when he’s fed.
The soul runs, far and fast. It runs to the first thing it can call home.
Kevin Daly sits looking at the picture of his son. He can’t see that it’s a boy, yet, and he can’t see that it’s healthy, that its heart is beating, even at this early age. But the doctor in the ultra sound clinic had reassured him. Everything is perfect. It’s a son and it’s a miracle.
He transfers his attention to his wife, Claire, sleeping in bed beside him. They never thought that this would be possible. Never. He feels blessed. He comes from a large family, although many of them have been lost to war and other attrition. His family have produced more than their fair share of warriors for their country. But, he doesn’t seem to have the fecundity of the rest of them. He has no other children. Neither does Claire, and it’s getting late for them both. The doctors have warned most strictly that this is the last chance for a family of their own blood.
Claire’s face is relaxed in sleep, but she wears a smile. Her hand moves over her stomach, perhaps comforting the baby there. It might need some comfort. For the first two months of pregnancy, they thought that she might lose it, as she has lost so many others. She’d never stopped bleeding in those two months, her body perhaps trying to get rid of it. But then the baby had somehow strengthened, as though something had been added to it, and it had become perfect. It’s six months old now, and they’ve dared to start thinking about names.
His gaze strays to a much-thumbed notebook on the bedside table. Claire has been researching her family, such as they are. She was a Martin, before she married Kevin. It sounds English, but she’s as Irish as they come, from the same county as him, Galway. What she’s found is that her family has had a strictly linear descent for centuries. One child in each generation, no more, no less. In keeping with that, Claire has no brothers or sisters, no aunts or uncles, at least on her father’s side. She’s the first daughter of that arrow-straight family tree, and they’ve decided to name their son for Claire’s family, so the name won’t be lost.
He smiles in recollection, and lays his hand over Claire’s, over their son, gently so as not to awaken either of them at this low point of the night. Claire loves a black sheep, especially a black sheep that can be redeemed. She’s always reading stories about hard-won redemption and salvation. It’s no surprise to him, then, that she’s chosen a black sheep to name her son after.
Information about her family is scanty, once you get beyond the last hundred years. But, in a local archive in Galway, a diary has somehow survived, a diary of a Mary Martin. Her ancestress. It seems that Mary had become pregnant – not a good thing to happen in 1753, if you weren’t wed. Mary had been sent away, to Dublin, to have her son, and so she had escaped a tragedy, a small and local apocalypse. Almost the whole population of her village had been mysteriously wiped out. Of course, villages were small, in those days, probably not so many as a hundred people, although they hadn’t researched the numbers yet. And epidemic illnesses were common. It had been too late for the Black Death, but perhaps typhoid, or maybe even syphilis. Who knew?
Still, in the diary, Mary Martin had named her lover, the father of her bastard child. Liam O’Connor. One of the O’Connors, although a minor branch of that family of mythical heroes. It seemed that he, too, had died in the apocalypse, because there was no further mention of him, only a much-worked drawing of a cross with his initials on, whenever she wrote of her child.
And so Claire and Kevin’s child will be Liam Connor Martin Daly. A bit of a mouthful, but he likes the sound of it.
He leans back onto his pillow. Spring is well advanced, high summer almost here. Tomorrow, he’ll finish the pergola and swing seat that he’s started, so that Claire can sit comfortably in the afternoon sun, carrying the sole heir of both their houses.
As he muses on that, the air seems to tremble around him. He knuckles his ear, trying to make it pop, as he hears a deep reverberation. But the humming remains. The tiny light by his side flickers. Then there are words, words he can almost hear, but can’t understand. Claire murmurs fitfully in her sleep, both hands now over her child.
He scrambles upright again, looking for the source of the disturbance, checking the alarm clock to see whether the radio has somehow come on, but it is mute. More words, heard in his bones, not in his ears, make him gasp.
And then the words are clear, ringing around the room like the passing bell.
Asa sa fie! Asa sa fie! Acum!
Claire screams, her first waking thought to clutch at her belly. It is over quickly, before even the ambulance can arrive.
Kevin holds his wife tightly, trying to hold her and their child together, as the boy’s life bleeds away, blazing scarlet on their white bed linen.
There are words, whispering through the night.
Shh. Don't worry about it.
I love you.
Close your eyes.
The Fourth Re-ensoulment
Sadie Thomson sits with her daughter, as she has done every afternoon for four years. Coral is now seven, but she doesn’t run or jump or play, like other seven year olds. She sits in the chair next to Sadie, wordlessly gazing into space. The only clue that she is alive is the pitiful rise and fall of her thin chest. She drowned when she was three and, when even the paramedics had given up on her, she revived, miraculously, for a few precious minutes.
But the miracle ended, and she’s been nothing but a puppet since then. Her heart beats, her body does the things a body does. But Coral isn’t there. She doesn’t speak, she seems not to hear, and Sadie daren’t think what her daughter is looking at with that sightless gaze.
As she so often does, Sadie puts out her hand and picks up her daughter’s unresisting one. She doesn’t know whether Coral can feel her, or is aware of the movement as Sadie pulls the hand into her lap. Coral doesn’t even look at her.
Sadie pulls a handkerchief from her pocket and dabs at the tears that have spilled over onto her cheeks, and as she does so, a sound intrudes on her grief, a sound that must be outside the room, because there’s nothing to make a sound inside it, other than Sadie’s choked little sob. Perhaps someone has a radio on in the next room. She’s never heard a radio on in the years she’s been coming here, but perhaps there’s been a change of...patient.
A young woman is speaking, calling out. Perhaps it’s a play.
Buffy, you have to let me go. Blood starts it, and until the blood stops flowing, it'll never stop.
Another woman, answering her.
It's Summers blood. It's just like mine.
There are other words, mixed in with sobs, and Sadie wishes whoever had the radio on would tune to something a bit more cheerful.
And then Coral takes a deep, deep breath. She looks at her mother – really looks at her.
“I remember you,” she says, in a voice that sounds too old for a seven year old, and then there’s another gasp, and Coral says, “Mom? Mommy?”
Sadie takes Coral everywhere. Everywhere that a seven year old could want to go in a bright summer that seems to go on forever. It truly is magical. Sadie even takes her everywhere that a four or five or six year old would want to go, since Coral missed out on all of that. And Coral loves it. She tells her mother that she can’t ever have imagined being so happy. She has an appetite for life that has been whetted by the time she’s spent out of it. When she sleeps, she’s watched over by a veritable heaven full of angels. She’s covered her room with pictures of angels. There are willow trees, and there are pictures of the breaking dawn, but most of all there are angels. Whenever they pass a shop that sells angels, Coral insists they check it out. Sometimes Sadie thinks that Coral is looking for a particular angel that she hasn’t yet found. And sometimes Sadie thinks, irrationally, that perhaps Coral was sustained by an angel during her time...away.
The summer passes by in a flash, but everything must end. It’s been a glorious September. Coral should have been back in school weeks ago, but the school have been very understanding, and are helping the girl to ease back into normal life. She’s been attending part time for now.
Today, they are at the shopping mall. Sadie has brought her for hamburgers and milk shakes, her last week day outing before she goes to school full-time. They’re having fun as Coral constantly discovers new things. Milk shakes are new. Halfway through their meal, Sadie has to go to the restroom. She’s reluctant to leave Coral alone, but what harm can she come to, here?
The window is slightly ajar to the alley outside, and as Sadie washes her hands, she hears voices outside. It sounds too... too remote to be a conversation. It sounds like a radio. That reminds her of something but she can’t grasp the butterfly of recollection.
Osiris, keeper of the gate, master of all fate, hear us.
A radio play? Something Egyptian? She pulls out a paper towel to dry her hands.
Before time, and after. Before knowing and nothing. Accept our offering. Know our prayer.
Strange stuff. Sadie briefly runs a comb through her hair.
Osiris! Here lies the warrior of the people. Let her cross over.
There’s a sharp sound outside, a sound of breaking plates, of splintering glass, and then a silence louder than an earthquake. Sobbing, fear lending her speed and strength, Sadie drags the door open. Coral is in the booth where she left her. The girl has fallen forward onto the table, knocking the plates of hamburger and salad onto the floor. A milkshake glass has fallen and shattered, but the other one is still rolling around on the table, glinting in the sun, the strawberry pink liquid pooling into Coral’s hair.
Dropping her purse, Sadie runs to Coral, knocking aside a waitress who has come over to see what is wrong with the girl. Sadie takes Coral by the shoulders and lifts her up. Her daughter is breathing, but her eyes are vacant, focused on a space that Sadie can never see. Coral is alive, but no one is home. Perhaps no one will ever be home again.
This is how shadows can become reality, and reality darkens and dies. This is how the world is turned and souls are traded.
So, what do you think? Is it magic?
Feed Jo Visit Jo or at her Livejournal
Rating: For anyone
Summary: It’s about souls, and magic, and those in-between times.
I always said that I would never write about Angel and Buffy as human. Well, as I discovered, never is a long time.
Angel’s re-ensoulment in season 4 isn’t included, of course, because apart from being trapped in a pot, his soul, when the pot is broken, is clearly really busy in the aetheric, giving Angelus a good going-over and persuading Faith not to die. He’s got no time for meandering off elsewhere, and Joss already covered the events at home...